I've got relatives in Killashandra and it rained a lot when I last visited them. I know that a popular name for Ireland is the Emerald Isle, largely because of the lush, green vales. I've been on spectacular nights out in Dublin, walking from pub to pub on rain soaked streets. I even knew that there was a Johnny Cash song all about the 40 shades of green that he saw in Ireland.
It may not surprise you, then, that the recent Wicklow 200 sportive was, in part at least, very much of a character that befits an area that averages 895mm of rain per year! My home town of Northampton averages 605mm of rain per year - almost 300mm less than Wicklow - so the likelihood of a good soaking was always there. But in June? Surely not.
I don't mind the wet stuff too much, provided that I'm already riding when the H2O starts to fall. Setting off in a downpour, come on, that's just for bonkers people! And so it was on 9th June - a glorious sunny morning, with a forecast for showers from 2pm onwards. Not a problem, I thought, just a little debate in my head about whether to take a pack-up rain jacket or stash my pucca Sportful rain-for-a-week-and-still-stay-dry jacket.
Readers of my previous articles on Sportive.com are probably familiar with a couple of cycling 'gods' that tend to follow me around - Poorplanicus and Spartacusalot. Well, both of them had a good time that day because I chose to take the pack-up jacket!
48 hours earlier, a familiar scene plays out on the road outside my house.
Three blokes, with three bikes and three times more kit than they need, stand around scratching their heads wondering how on earth it's all going to fit in to the car. Yes, it's a big car - a Landrover Discovery in fact - but it's still three blokes, three bikes and three times as much kit as they need.
The rear seats come down then split 60/40 as we realise that (the other) Andy needs to sit in the back. Martin suggests that we all take our front wheels off and fits his bike in. That's no good for the Andy cluster though, so I suggest taking the rear wheels off as well. Martin takes his rear wheel off then I removes mine. AndyP (Pittsy) looks at his bike, his face betraying his brain's futile attempt to get his mouth to suggest an alternative approach. There's more oil on Pittsy's chain and rear mech than was released in to the sea at the height of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. We laugh as Pittsy tries to remove his rear wheel without coating himself in oil but, as it will transpire, he has the last laugh.
With a car packed so densely it exerts its own gravitational pull, Martin sits expectantly in the driver's seat waiting to begin the four-hour drive to Holyhead to catch the ferry to Dublin.
"Hang on a minute" I say, "we've forgotten Thomas's booze". Omitting just X as a starting letter for expletives, Martin questions my previous comment. I explain that Thomas, with whom we will be staying for three nights, asked me to bring a supply of beers to Ireland because it is more than double the price in the Emerald Isle.
Sheepishly, I carry a sports holdall full of beer to the Landrover but it is clearly not going to fit in. We stash a few tins in various gaps to offer some form of appeasement to Thomas and then, finally, at 7.30am, we're off...
11 hours later, Martin's Landrover rolls off the Ulysees Ferry straight in to Dublin's peak rush hour traffic. The journey had been uneventful, enlivened only by a rather unexpected conversation with a customs officer about the most unusual item that she had ever found in a car. The answer was, in fact, a skunk!
Whoever coined the term 'rush hour' definitely has to be held accountable for the gross inaccuracy of the phrase. We didn't rush anywhere for a couple of hours, but finally entered the outskirts of Naas drawing ever closer to our friend's home. The rest of the evening is a blur - a mix of baked fish and potatoes, Sauvignon Blanc, wonderful cheese and a dram or two of Tyrconnell Whiskey may have something to do with that!
Saturday morning dawns bright and cheery enough for a recce ride, with a forecast from strengthening winds and sunny intervals in the afternoon. The four of us are soon dressed ready to ride but there is a lingering question amongst our host's family - 'How on earth can somebody snore that loud?' The mystery isn't too much of a mystery as we all blame Martin. I take the opportunity to stay quiet as I know that I probably produced a few rumbles myself!
One BMC, two Treks and a Giant are soon zipping through the sleepy streets of Naas before bursting out in to the rolling terrain of County Kildare and County Wicklow. The early 2.5km, 5% average gradient Rathmore climb is a Cat4 that we take at a steady pace before skirting the eastern edge of the Poulaphouca Reservoir (Blessington Waters) and gaze across to Blessington, home of the superbly named Reservoir Cogs cycling club.
Puns are aplenty with this club, as they have their own 125km sportive called the Reservoir Dog in September, with a less bitey but more snappy 65km 'Reservoir Pup' option. Sportive.com readers can find further details on their website.
Pittsy is having one of those days that we all have every now and again. His form is the exact opposite of the need to quote Jens Voight's famous 'Shup Up Legs' phrase and is, in fact, more like 'Wake Up Legs'. Even though the vast majority of cyclists will identify with Pittsy's phrase rather than Jens', I really can't see it as the basis of an autobiography!
Relief is soon at hand, however, as we roll in to Hollywood (without seeing any major celebrities whatsoever) and stop at the Hollywood café for cakes and coffees. We terminate scones, lemon drizzle cake and Victoria sponge in less time than it takes to say 'Arnold Schwarzenegger, you'll be back for the 5th time'.
The lemon drizzle is the best I have ever had, bar none and they served it with cream too! Arnie's Terminator nemesis John Connor may have believed that "the future's not set, there's no fate but what we make for ourselves" but Thomas's lad was playing gaelic football later that afternoon so we had to forego further cake termination.
Pittsy seems recharged by his refuelling and we're soon on Slieve Corragh, a 3km cat 4 climb that averages 3% but spikes at 9%. 40 minutes later everyone is back at base - 64km and 800m of climbing is enough for the recce ride.
Readers familiar with sportives will know that there is usually a two stage process before you can ride an event. 'Registration' is when you spend your cash to secure a place. 'Sign on' is when you do exactly that - sign on so the organisers know you have turned up rather than stay at home feigning food poisoning from a 'dodgy' take away. With 'sign on' in mind, Martin and Andy2 set off to conduct the said administration in Dublin. Easy enough, right?
Wrong! The wrong postcode was entered in to the Sat Nav, resulting in more cakes and coffees but no completed sign on. I have to say, though, that Bray is a lovely place to spend an afternoon by the seafront.
Sunday Morning: "Are you awake?" asks the voice above my head.
I'm not having a moment of communication with an omnipotent deity but, instead, it is Pittsy rising from his 5am stupor in the top bunk.
"No", I reply, unable to muster any ounce of witty repartee at such an hour. With levels of communication thus established, we hurry downstairs to find Martin and Thomas already scoffing breakfast. By 6am, we hit the road back to Bray but this time on purpose and with an objective - complete the Wicklow 200!
Back in Bray for the second time in 24 hours, we're soon directed by the High Viz team to park in the overspill school car park. No one complains, though, as the weather is perfect - gorgeous blue skies, sunshine, light winds. Faffing is kept to a relatively low level before we trundle off to complete yesterday's sign on procedure. It turns out that we were good to ride anyway, so Poorplanicus and Spatacusalot laugh a little at my expense!
I hold my breath for a few seconds as we pass over the start line then begin my initial road checks. Gears working - tick. Brakes working - tick. No strange, unfamiliar, noises from the bottom bracket - tick. This ride, however, needs an extra check due to the presence of Martin. He's a magnet for any item that can possibly puncture a tyre and these are worrying times before we get up to speed. As an aside, Martin and I have ridden Paris-Roubaix together, where he punctured long before the first pave section. In fact, it was at least 100m from the start line! This time, fortunately, the gods of sharp things are looking the other way as we settle in to crest a few short rises before beginning the climb up Old Long Hill to leave Bray behind.
It's a Cat3, 6% average, 2.7mile climb and our group is soon dispersed across the gradient, twiddling away at our own respective paces, safe in the knowledge that we've all agreed to ride at our own pace.
"See you at the finish", Martin states in his own inimitable, marvin-the-paranoid-android fashion, as he turns his elliptical chainset up the lower slopes.
"Aye", I reply, "Catch you later", knowing full well that his stubbornness will ensure he gets to the finish.
18 minutes later, Old Long Hill has been crested and a fellow rider casually advises me that we have already racked up 1000ft of climbing in the first 10 miles. I check his local knowledge on my Garmin to find he is indeed correct!
Any sportive that keeps up an average of 1000ft per 10 miles is going to hurt (a lot) as that's the realm of Alpine and Pyrenean rides or the Fred Whitton, South Downs & Dragon rides closer to home. I'm expecting 9000ft over 125 miles so the average will decrease, but it's a strong reminder of why the Wicklow 200 is known as Ireland's toughest one-day sportive. My Old Long Hill time is good enough for a place in the top 1/3 of Strava's all time rankings of 6500 athletes and a place in the top 25% for this year's leaderboard, so I'm happy enough with the effort.
The next 13 miles are a blast through the Wicklow Mountains National Park, dropping 500 feet as we charge towards Glendalough and the waiting Wicklow Gap. A few riders come and go but mostly I am on my own, denting the atmosphere with my own person shaped hole in a style that is comfortable but not overly aerodynamic. Wheel suckers do occasionally take advantage of my gift of 30% reduction in their effort, but the weather is fine and I'm feeling good, so I let the suckers do what they like to do.
Up ahead, above me in the distance, near the horizon, something bright and pink catches my eye. It's very bright and moving, slowly but, yes, it's definitely moving. Then, as I become aware of more traditional cycle jersey colours in the distance, it dawns on me that the pink thing must be a rider further up the Wicklow Gap! Wow, that is very, very pink I think to myself but, nonetheless, my target is acquired - catch the rider in the pink jersey!
Someone with a dark sense of humour is clearly involved in the design of the Wicklow 200 route. It's not the usual 'shark's tooth' profile but, instead, is the lower jaw of Count Dracula.
His neck-piercing fangs of the Wicklow Gap and the double whammy climbs of Slieve Mann / Shay Elliott (Drumgoff) will certainly have a blood draining effect on the ill-prepared. Neither garlic nor Guinness will help today ,but preparation to take on the Wicklow Gap (Cat2, 4miles, 5%, 1100ft ascent), Slieve Mann (Cat3, 2miles, 8%, 800ft ascent) and Shay Elliott (2miles, 7.6%, 800ft ascent) is absolutely essential.
Strava, the all knowing watcher of riders, tells me that I chugged up Wicklow Gap for 33 minutes at 7.5mph while knocking out a steady 234W. As much as we all love those leaderboards, they don't really tell the story of your ride. Strava may 'remember' my 234W, but I will remember gradually closing in on pinky until, about 400m from the summit, I finally got to say hello to my target rider. Target acquired, it was time for the first scoff and photo stop of the day.
Sufficiently refuelled by nature's perfect cycling food (bananas) and Martin's genius idea to wrap fig rolls in tinfoil, it's time to get off the 1630ft summit. The weather may still be fine but it's two hours into the ride and there's the small matter of the remaining 100 miles to complete.
Fortunately, the next 25 miles are basically downhill apart from the the slight inconvenice of Slieve Corragh (Cat4, 1.8miles, 3%, 340ft ascent). In the fertile imagination of my mind, Slieve Corragh is the perfect climb for Puncheurs such as myself and I think that my 240W, 11.7 mph effort isn't too shabby for a 53-year-old.
Sure, it may be 3m 59s slower than the chap that sits atop the leaderboard but he weighs about the same as my right leg.
The twin descents from Wicklow Gap and Slieve Corragh are an absolute blast in the dry conditons. I average over 27mph on the so called Hollywood Descent from Slieve Corragh, striking up an aquaintance with a rider who happens to be rattling along at the same speed.
Declan and I ride for most of the rest of the sportive together, each of us taking in turns to do a 'pull' on the front before we get to the first official feedstation at Baltinglass. It's just a shame that so few other riders were willing to cooperate with us. Come on, sportive.com readers, don't be one of those wheel suckers unless you take your turn on the front. Etiquette, please...
Declan's mate soon arrives at the feed station and then the merry band of bothers becomes six, as Thomas, Martin and Pittsy arrive in quick succession. Unbeknown to us within the shelter of the feed station, the weather gods are having their first argument of the day about when, and where, the rain should fall. They've chosen a five-mile stretch just outside of Baltinglass to wage war and the results are dramatic - the tarmac is soaked, puddles abound, spray spurts from the back of wheels and the brown outwash of mud from green fields threatens to cover everyone.
And then it's gone, as if nothing happened - but I can see the foreboding clouds starting to gather as Declan and I take turns to boss a mini peloton towards Slieve Mann.
"I think this is it," Declan says as we hit a couple of ramps around 10%.
Goeography, however, was clearly not his strong point at school as the ramp is just one of those countless, unnamed, bumps on a sportive as tough as the Wicklow 200. Slieve Mann is still two miles away, but we know it when we get there.
It hits you in the face with a 9% opener, then punches you with ramps of 12-13%. Like a boxer hugging the ropes for breath, I recover a little on the 5% section but Slieve Mann is coming in for the knockout - a final ramp of 11% before the summit. The views though are spectacular and worth the effort. I find my less gravity-susceptible buddy, Declan, sitting behind a grassy bank, taking shelter from the strengthening wind. We're about 75 miles in and it's just about to get nasty, very, very nasty...
As soon as I've refuelled at the summit and starting the descent, the weather changes. It doesn't just rain, it hails and the temperature plummets to 7C, in June! How I wish I'd taken my waterproof jacket rather than my water resistant one as I'm soon soaked and getting cold very quickly. There's no need to pedal and even if I had, it would have made the situation worse both in terms of rapidity of heat loss and danger on a slippery surface so I have to grin and bear it. The 2.5 mile descent takes me around four and a half minutes, but the relief when I start to climb up the Shay Elliott Drumgoff is palpable as heat will go back into my bones!
15 minutes of effort up the climb named after Ireland's first major international rider, Seamus 'Shay' Elliott, soon sort out my core temperature. Nestling in the beautiful Glenmalure valley, its average gradient of 7.6% over a two-mile length belies the 11% ramps that have me dancing on my pedals, Well, it's more of a stomp than a Contador-esque poetic combination of bike and body, but you know what I mean. My mood lightens as I crest the summit at just shy of 1300ft knowing that I'm about 2/3rds of the way around and only 7 miles from the final feed station at Rathdrum. I relax a little - it's a mistake for someone of my experience. I know it, the weather gods know it and boy do they make me regret it.
Rathdrum is a blessing in disguise. It's a welcome sight at almost 90 miles in and the sandwiches are very welcome 'proper' food. I hate gels with a passion and avoid the drinks tabs as they seem to play with my stomach. In fact, the only chemical assistance that I use are natural electrolytes to add to my water bottles. In 2018, I completed a challenge march known as the 'Fan Dance' that is used during SAS/SBS selection. The organisers and support staff of that event are all ex-SAS or ex-SBS, so if they recommend electrolytes then it's good enough for mortals such as I.
Having been 'blessed' by Rathdrum's supply of food and chatted for a few minutes with Martin, I set off to complete the remaining 30 miles or so. It felt good to know that I was on the home straight, but every sportive has a sting in its tail. Except this one had three!
Sting 1 - 'The Wasp'. The Wicklow 200 is called the Wicklow 200 because the route is 200km in length. Sounds obvious until you see the road signs saying 'Bray - 10km' but then you realise that you've still got 15 miles (24km) to ride. The organisers are playing with your mind! They want a nice round number for the route and you just want to finish the ride!
Sting 2 - 'The Scorpion'. Those extra miles to get to the 200km figure are not going to be given easily. There's the small matter of the mile-long, 5% average rise out of Greystones accompanied by cars for pretty much the first time since departure. Then, there's the two-mile twisting and turning 300ft ascent up and through Enniskerry with even more of our metal caged friends for company.
Sting 3 - 'Noah'. The only man that ever saw more rain than I did in the last 10 miles of the Wicklow 200. Any chance of getting to the finish in dry conditions vanished on the climb towards Enniskerry as riders battled conditions that were more suited to February! The temperature dropped, again, and cars were forced to use their headlights in conditions of awful visibility. It was grim!
Finally, the finish line at Bray Emmets Club is in sight. Declan has dropped me on the Enniskerry climb so I cross it alone, soaked and cold, but really quite pleased to get there. My trusty Madone gets unceremoniously dumped on a rack then I hurry in to the warmth, pausing monentarily to collect my medal. I am quite sure it will enjoy its four hours of daylight before being cast into the box of medals that we all have.
The organisers have done a superb job getting piping hot pasta ready for anyone that needs it. I've already eaten half of it before I find a place to sit down and am amazed to find that it's right next to Declan. We have a good moan about the final downpours and the slightly torturous route to get back to Bray, but it's all in good humour really.
Martin soon turns up, followed by Pittsy and then Thomas who, we later find out via his wife, had come close to bailing at the last feed station. Credit to him though for not taking the bailout option. As my memento from the Fan Dance states, "After the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure."
Thank you for the experience, Wicklow 200, we took everything you could throw at us and still came out smiling, just!
Before closing this report, I have two small announcements to make:
1) Never believe anyone who says it won't rain all day. It can, it does and it did for a week when I got home!
2) If you feel you have been affected by this report and think that Strava really does tell you everything you need to know about your ride, then it is time to take the Strava Junkie Test. Check out the author's quiz to assess your level of addiction: